Art Inspires: Aditi Brennan Kapil on what comic books and Hindu gods have in common

I grew up on my dad’s stories of Hindu gods—and on Marvel comics. There were other ingredients to life, obviously, but these are two that I channeled into writing “The Chronicles of Kalki,” the Vishnu installment of my Displaced Hindu Gods trilogy now playing at Mixed Blood Theatre.

The trilogy displaces the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, imagining them as immigrants in the West, each in their own play, exploring their disparate identities but in a common theatrical cosmology. So for the play based on Vishnu the Sustainer—the god invested in our survival, the one who gets personally involved when we’re in trouble—I channeled my teenage years of puberty-fueled emotional displacement and the moment that I discovered comic books, escaping into a world where outcasts had superpowers and saved the world from destruction again and again. I wrought my own version of Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu. I created what I imagine I might have summoned back then from hormones, sweat, and all the conflicting needs and humiliations of being 15: Kalki, a badass girl who owns every part of her body and sexuality and twisted mind, who conquers the forces of darkness, and who makes you feel powerful just by association.

Aditi Brennan Kapil's "Displaced Hindu Gods" trilogy runs at the Mixed Blood Theatre through October27.

Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Displaced Hindu Gods” trilogy runs at the Mixed Blood Theatre through October27.

Now I’m looking at this lintel arch from a Vishnu temple, and it hits me: In much the same way that I did not invent the superhero fantasy as survival mechanism, comic books did not invent the frame-by-frame narration of the heroic epic. All I’ve done is unconsciously trace my comics’ lineage to their stone relief precursor. The densely populated frames, characters caught in mid-action, the artwork that sometimes crawls outside the box to contextualize the narrative into a greater mythos, the familiar tale played out again and again as we pass on our stories of survival and transcendence, the climactic battle that sometimes takes up the whole page.

My dad could never understand what I saw in comic books. “How can you look at that?” he’d ask. “It’s so chaotic, doesn’t it make your head ache?”

And I want to go back in time and say, “What’s throwing you off here, the colors? The scale? The thought bubbles? Because you grew up on this, too. Look at this arch, which is presumably a fraction of the narrative that once covered every wall of the temple. It’s the exact same narrative form. And likely served a similar need.”

The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy by Aditi Brennan Kapil, consisting of the plays “Brahman/i, a one-hijra stand-up comedy show,” “The Chronicles of Kalki,” and “Shiv,” runs through October 27 at Mixed Blood Theatre.